Footpath maintenance dilemma as massive cuts to budgets bite

Bosses at a cash-strapped council which has the largest public rights of way network in the country are faced with a major maintenance backlog at a time when they are grappling with massive budget cuts.

North Yorkshire has 6,000 miles of public rights of way – the largest network in England – and councillors will next week be told that North Yorkshire County Council is faced with a backlog of around 9,000 maintenance jobs.

This week the authority announced it faces enforcing extra cuts of nearly £22m on top of the £69m in savings it is already having to make.

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As many as 400 posts could go in the next two financial years from the authority which has already shed more than 1,000 workers over the past 18 months amid the Government’s austerity drive.

A report to councillors says that the service, in common with others, is likely to come under increasing pressure as budgets are cut.

North Yorkshire’s extensive network of public footpaths, bridleways, and byways are a vital part of local life, attracting visitors which bolster the economy and in many cases enable locals to get about.

David Bowe, the council’s corporate director, business and environmental services, says in a report: “The network provides one of the key means by which residents and visitors can access and enjoy the county’s unique landscape.

“A well-maintained network is vital in supporting both the 
visitor economy of the county and is a key tool in addressing the health and well-being of its residents.

“In addition, parts of the network form important commuter links in our local communities.”

Mr Bowe says that at present the authority is responsible for just under 4,000 miles while the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and North York Moors National Park Authority look after the rights of way within their boundaries, which equates to just over 1,000 miles each.

However, Mr Bowe says this arrangement is currently under review following Government budget cutbacks.

“Following the Government’s last comprehensive spending review, both national parks have expressed the intent to withdraw from existing delegation agreements and seek to renegotiate these in the light of their own difficult financial circumstances,” Mr Bowe says in the report.

The process was now underway in the case of the Dales authority and was expected to begin shortly with the North York moors authority.

Members of the council’s transport, economy and environment scrutiny committee will be told on Wednesday that a 10-year plan has been produced to prioritise spending over the next decade.

The kind of jobs that need doing range from smaller projects such as trimming of undergrowth to the blockage of routes.

In the last financial year, 3,393 new maintenance jobs were reported, while 3,508 were resolved. The target for the current financial year is to fix 3,500.

Ministers have asked local authorities across the country to freeze council tax for a further year, in exchange for a grant equivalent to a tax rise of one per cent.

Combined with additional funding cuts from Westminster, North Yorkshire County Council will have a financial black hole of £21.8m to bridge over the next two years if it accepts the grant – 
on top of the cutbacks already agreed as part of original spending plans.

The council has already drawn up plans for saving £8m in the new financial year beginning next April and will have to find a further £13.4m if it accepts the Government’s tax freeze grant.

The following year, the amount to be saved will rise from £8m to £16.4m. The figures are based on preliminary assessments, which may have to be amended when the formal funding agreements are made in January.